Setting the Scene – Standard at Grand Prix Madrid

Posted in Event Coverage on December 3, 2016

By Frank Karsten

Nearly 1,500 players showed up in Madrid to test their mettle in Standard at the last Constructed Grand Prix of 2016. As always, the first prize of $10,000, 8 pro points, and a glorious trophy were up for grabs, along with cash prizes for the Top 64 and Pro Tour invitations for the Top 8.

Let's take a look at what to expect from Standard this weekend.

The Big Four

Lately, it appeared that four archetypes were on top of Standard. To introduce three of them—the fourth one will come after—let's travel one month to the past. At Grand Prix Warsaw, held on October 29-30, Black-Green Delirium and White-Blue Flash were by far the most popular decks on Day 2. Mardu Vehicles (sometimes without black) was a distant third.

The Top 8 in Warsaw was overrun by Black-Green Delirium, but ultimately Gabrielius Kaklauskas and his White-Blue Flash deck came out on top. Meanwhile, Mardu Vehicles managed to put multiple players in the Top 16. Let's quickly go over the best-performing lists for each of these three archetypes.

Bart van Etten's Mardu Vehicles – 11th place at Grand Prix Warsaw 2016

Van Etten's list is still representative of the archetype one month later. Mardu Vehicles combines the best one-drops in the format with the strongest vehicles and removal spells. Inventor's Apprentice does a good Kird Ape impression; Toolcraft Exemplar is like Wild Nacatl; Unlicensed Disintegration is reminiscent of Searing Blaze; and Smuggler's Copter turns them all on.

There are alternative aggro decks, such as White Weenie, Red-White Vehicles, or Black-Red Aggro, which typically have a better mana base at the expense of some power. Either way, these alternative aggro decks share many cards with Mardu Vehicles and have a similar game plan, so for sake of simplicity we'll group all of them together and name the category after the best one, based on the Grand Prix Warsaw results: Mardu Vehicles.

Niels Molle's Black-Green Delirium – 2nd at Grand Prix Warsaw 2016

Black-Green Delirium is a well-rounded deck with efficient spot removal spells, powerful graveyard synergies, and board-dominating creatures. Ishkanah, Grafwidow is the standout, allowing the deck to stabilize and get enough time to deploy, say, Emrakul, the Promised End for the win.

The archetype hasn't undergone big changes since last month. The only thing that stands out to me from Molle's list is that nowadays, most Black-Green Delirium players don't run as many copies of Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet in their maindeck anymore. But that's a minor tweak only.

I should also mention the existence of a black-green aggro variant that relies on Verdurous Gearhulk, Smuggler's Copter, Blossoming Defense, Servant of the Conduit, and Catacomb Sifter. This deck is not as heavily based around the delirium mechanic and doesn't run as many removal spells, but it is capable of presenting a faster clock. Nevertheless, the slower black-green variant is the norm.

Gabrielius Kaklauskus's White-Blue Flash – 1st at Grand Prix Warsaw 2016

Blue-White Flash is not a synergy deck. It simply runs the best blue and white cards at each spot in the curve. Many decks have a hard time beating Thraben Inspector on turn one, Smuggler's Copter on turn two, Spell Queller on turn three, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar on turn four, and Archangel Avacyn on turn five.

Although the deck contains little to no instants, it has flash spells that allow it to make plays during the opponent's turn—hence the deck name. Compared to Kaklauskus's list, a recent addition is the one of Revolutionary Rebuff to the maindeck. It has become a staple of the archetype as it excels at countering Ishkanah, Grafwidow, which is otherwise a huge problem for this deck.

Mardu Vehicles, Black-Green Delirium, and Blue-White Flash were all well-known at the time of Grand Prix Warsaw. Since then, we have seen the rise of Red-Green Aetherworks Marvel.

Jaberwocki's Red-Green Aetherworks Marvel – Top 4 at a Magic Online PTQ

Red-Green Aetherworks Marvel was played at Pro Tour Kaladesh by several players including Niels Noorlander and Peter Vieren, but it didn't get as much press as the more all-in Temur variant. Afterwards, Logan "Jaberwocki" Nettles took a similar list, possibly a more finely tuned one, to Magic Online, and he managed to rack up an unbelievable number of undefeated league trophies.

The dream of this deck is to hit Emrakul, the Promised End on turn four with Aetherworks Marvel. To get six energy, a single Woodweaver's Puzzleknot gets you all the way there, but a suitable combination of Harnessed Lightning, Aether Hub, Attune with Aether, and Servant of the Conduit can also do the trick.

Although Spell Queller is a problem for any Aetherworks Marvel deck because it stops the namesake card, this red-green deck has Harnessed Lightning and Chandra, Torch of Defiance to burn Spell Queller, along with a backup plan of controlling the board with Ishkanah, Grafwidow. This provides more resiliency game than the all-in Temur variant that was all the rage at Pro Tour Kaladesh, as Red-Green Marvel has good interactive cards instead of an uncastable Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger and an irrelevant Glassblower's Puzzleknot.

In summary, if the Magic Online metagame from the last two weeks is any indication, then these are the four top archetypes in Standard right now. Naturally, there are plenty of other viable decks around, including some relative newcomers such as Blue-Red Control. And interesting new decks or evolutions are still emerging daily, so there is no need to be afraid to take your own brew to a Standard Showdown event. And I'm hoping to see plenty of cool strategies here at this Grand Prix. But if you want to understand the dynamics of the Standard metagame, then in my view, these four decks are the ones to focus on.

The Matchups Between the Big Four

There are a lot of differing opinions on how each of these four decks match up against each other. The matchups are largely dependent on who is piloting the decks, on specific card choices, and on sideboard strategies and game plans. Without a ton of data to back it up, it's tough to build a proper metagame matrix, but my best estimation is as follows.

  B/G Delirium W/U Flash Mardu Vehicles R/G Marvel
B/G Delirium X 50% 60% 40%
W/U Flash 50% X 40% 60%
Mardu Vehicles 40% 60% X 50%
R/G Marvel 60% 40% 50% X

The numbers in this table represent the probability that the row deck will win a match against the column deck. These numbers are based on my own impressions, reading about the format, and talking to the three-bye players who dropped in as I was writing this piece.

There are six matchups in this anti-symmetric table, so let's go over them one-by-one:

  • B/G Delirium is even (50%) against U/W Flash. This is a hotly contested matchup, and I've head people proclaim the matchup in favor of both B/G Delirium and U/W Flash. It's on the top of my list of matters to investigate over the weekend, but I believe that even though B/G Delirium used to be favored on the back of Ishkanah, Grafwidow, the recent addition of Revolutionary Rebuff (and sometimes Spell Shrivel, too) to the maindeck made the matchup closer to 50-50. Either way, the better player has a good chance of winning this skill-intensive matchup.
  • B/G Delirium is favored (60%) against Mardu Vehicles. With cheap spot removal spells and Liliana, the Last Hope, B/G Delirium has enough early interaction to stave off the assault from Mardu Vehicles, and then eventually Ishkanah, Grafwidow or Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet can take over. It's still possible for Mardu Vehicles to win with a fast, resilient draw including the right mix of cards, but in my experience, B/G Delirium is slightly ahead.
  • B/G Delirium has a poor matchup (40%) against R/G Marvel. Except for some discard spells, B/G Delirium simply doesn’t have a good way to deal with an early Aetherworks Marvel into Emrakul, the Promised End. Moreover, discard spells don't help against what is on top of the opponent's library, and B/G Delirium doesn't have a fast clock to rapidly close out the game. At the same time, R/G Marvel can't hit Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger and won't find Aetherworks Marvel every game, so the matchup is not unwinnable for B/G Delirum.
  • W/U Flash has an unfavorable matchup (40%) against Mardu Vehicles. A good way to beat Spell Queller and Reflector Mage is to play a lot of three-power creatures that only one or two mana. With Toolcraft Exemplar, Scrapheap Scrounger, and Veteran Motorist, Mardu Vehicles can typically go under W/U Flash. Still, thanks to swingy cards like Archangel Avacyn, W/U Flash stands a fair chance.
  • W/U Flash has a favorable matchup (60%) against R/G Marvel. Blue countermagic is a great answer to any combo strategy. If you can stop Aetherworks Marvel from resolving, then the accompanying Woodweaver's Puzzleknot become close to useless. Due to red burn spells and Ishkanah, it's not a complete walkover, but W/U Flash is still ahead.
  • Mardu Vehicles is even (50%) against R/G Marvel. In theory, I would say that Mardu Vehicles is slightly favored if it's built fast enough, but I remember testing this matchup for Pro Tour Kaladesh and ultimately agreeing that it was close. Mardu Vehicles has a fast clock that doesn't give R/G Marvel deck a lot of time to set up, but a turn-four Marvel or Ishkanah can easily steal games.

Nash Equilibria

If we focus solely on these four decks and assume that my matchup matrix is correct—which is a big assumption—then we can look for equilibria. Here, an "equilibrium" means a metagame (i.e., a distribution over the four decks) where each of the four decks has a 50% match win rate against the field as a whole.

For our situation, there are an infinite amount of equilibria, each associated with a real number k from the interval [0,1] that represents the combined fraction of B/G Delirium and W/U Flash. A metagame is an equilibrium if and only if the following holds:

  • B/G Delirium is a fraction 0.5k of the metagame
  • W/U Flash is a fraction 0.5k of the metagame
  • Mardu Vehicles is a fraction 0.5(1-k) of the metagame
  • R/G Marvel is a fraction 0.5(1-k) of the metagame

For example, 35% B/G Delirium, 35 W/U Flash, 15% Mardu Vehicles, and 15% R/G Marvel (corresponding to k=0.7) is an equilibrium.

To prove my "if and only if" statement, first of all it is easy to verify that any metagame as described above adheres to the equilibrium condition. For any different metagame, at least one of the following four cases are true:

  • B/G Delirium is more popular than U/W Flash. In that case, players can get an edge against the field by choosing R/G Marvel.
  • B/G Delirium is less popular than U/W Flash. In that case, players can get an edge against the field by choosing Mardu Vehicles.
  • Mardu Vehicles is more popular than R/G Marvel. In that case, players can get an edge against the field by choosing B/G Delirium.
  • Mardu Vehicles is less popular than R/G Marvel. In that case, players can get an edge against the field by choosing U/W Flash.

So if any of these imbalances are present, then we're not in equilibrium. Quod erat demonstrandum.

The Three-Bye Metagame

At the latest count, 18 players with three byes made their way to Madrid to do their best to solve the puzzle of the current Standard metagame. Here is the full list, where bracketed numbers indicate a player's standing in the Top 25:

  • Pro Tour Hall of Fame member Raphaël Lévy
  • Platinum pros (12) Ondřej Stráský, (15) Joel Larsson, (16) Andrea Mengucci, (20) Petr Sochůrek, Ivan Floch, and Niels Noorlander
  • Gold level pros (7) Marcio Carvalho, Michael Bonde, Marco Cammilluzzi, Pierre Dagen, Antonio Del Moral Leon, Javier Dominguez, Immanuel Gerschenson, Martin Jůza, Grzegorz Kowalski, Valentin Mackl, Mattia Rizzi, and Aleksa Telaro.

Notably absent from this European Grand Prix were Grand Prix veterans and Platinum pros (4) Lukas Blohon and Oliver Polak-Rottmann. Blohon was taking a little break to allow him to better focus on the upcoming Pro Tour, while Polak-Rottmann was sick last week and wasn't sure whether he could get back on his feet in time.

Currently, early on Saturday morning, I can't yet tell you about the whole of the Day 1 metagame or give away the individual choices each of the players listed above. However, I can give you a sneak peak at the archetype breakdown of these 18 players:

Black-Green Delirium – 11 players
Blue-White Flash – 4 players
Red-Green Marvel – 3 players
Black-Green Marvel – 1 players

This is a large vote of confidence in Black-Green Delirium. Notably, no three-bye player was playing Mardu Vehicles or some other aggro deck, likely because they were expecting this field and didn't want to run a deck with a poor matchup against Black-Green Delirium.

The large amount of players on Black-Green Delirium should be good news for the players running Aetherworks Marvel. After all, at Pro Tour Kaladesh, the sea of all-in Temur Marvel decks kept Black-Green Delirium at bay. After the Pro Tour, blue decks pushed out Aetherworks Marvel for a while, allowing Black-Green Delirium to make a comeback, but recently the metagame has seen the rise of the new breed of Red-Green Aetherworks Marvel. We'll see this weekend if it can indeed dismantle Black-Green Delirium.

To see what decks will rise to the top and any innovative new decks coming out of Grand Prix Madrid, check back throughout the weekend for text updates. Finally, for live video coverage from this weekend's other big Standard event, Grand Prix Denver, tune in to twitch.tv/magic!

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